Snakes, Fire and a Horror Movie

Nobody could say that David Printiss’ job as on-site program director of the Conservancy’s Apalachicola Bluffs and Ravines Preserve in Florida is boring. And neither is Printiss himself. He tells a story that is sure to make you squirm and go “Ew-w-w-w-w-w-w-w!”

David Printiss taking a phone call while holding a pine snake. Printiss is the Conservancy's Apalachicola Bluffs and Ravines Preserve program director.

David Printiss taking a phone call while holding a pine snake. Printiss is the Conservancy's Apalachicola Bluffs and Ravines Preserve program director.

David Printiss:

I never fall into a rut! On any given day I could be behind my desk or doing the unexpected in the field. Once I was preparing a grant proposal when a partner came by the office with a 5-foot pine snake. We went outside, and I took an important business call on my cell phone as the snake started crawling around my head. Someone snapped a photo – you can tell from my face I wasn’t “posing.”

Maybe the coolest experience is when a controlled burn has the particular timing, conditions, fuels and crew we need for it to go exactly as planned. That’s so satisfying. Fire is incredibly transforming and such an important ecological process in Florida. When it all comes together perfectly it is pure magic. This is science with a lot of art involved; my job is to merge the two.

What is the most disgusting thing you’ve had to do in the name of science?

David Printiss:

On a biological survey in western Florida, we located a very large, closed drainage culvert (okay, it was a sewage ditch) that went underground several hundred yards before narrowing into two 4-foot pipes. I could smell bat guano and knew bats were in there, but didn’t know if the species was rare. So I explored this thing, by myself, in pitch darkness – it was surreal. Thankfully, my headlight worked because it felt like some kind of science fiction horror movie.

As I approached the bat colony, the roach population increased exponentially until every square inch of the floor and walls of the pipe were covered. Many crawled on me as I plodded through 10 to12 inches of bat guano. In the end it was well worth it – I discovered a maternity colony of the rare southeastern myotis bat – but I tell you, it was one of the creepiest things ever. I’m still not sure how I found the inner strength to crawl in there!

When was the last time something on the job brought you to tears?

David Printiss:

That was just a few months ago, following a successful prescribed fire. We’d spent a lot of time and energy restoring an area of the preserve that had been very disturbed. On this beautiful day, the restored native ground cover and the rest of the native species looked well on their way to recovery. We’d done our job!

What had been a solid wall of unnaturally dense hardwoods was now an open expanse of lush native wiregrass and scattered longleaf pine – we could see a quarter-mile or more, just like it should be. This was such a powerful, landscape-scale transformation. To know that I had a large hand in it brought me such joy. Everyone wants to be part of the solution.

I don’t shed many tears of sorrow on the job; I follow the ethos of “Don’t ever let ‘em see you down.”

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